A couple of weeks ago I invited a group of work friends over for a small dinner party. With an e-mail subject line of "Wild game night at the Branch ranch," I suppose I should not have been surprised by the barrage of questions that followed. After all, journalists tend to be an inquisitive bunch.
With a spicy blend of trepidation and curiosity, they responded to my invite one by one: "So you actually killed it?" "How are you cooking it exactly?" "Did you clean it yourself?" and "What part of it will we be eating?" I smiled to myself and crafted a response, reassuring them that they would enjoy a safe, nutritious, and hopefully delicious-to-them meal.
The word venison is derived from the Latin venatus, defined as "to hunt", or "the chase". Humans have been eating venison for tens of thousands of years. In Native American folklore, in historical accounts from the earliest European settlers, and throughout the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition and beyond, we find references to these animals. Deer were a staple in the diet of Native Americans and early European settlers. Whitetail and mule deer, in particular, were revered for their agility, their beauty and their flavor.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines venison as meat from deer, moose, elk, pronghorn, caribou and antelope. Within that broad description, these animals produce an even wider array of flavors, influenced by a number of factors including diet, regional habitat and exercise.
In addition to the questions showing a concern for personal safety, I was also asked "Does it taste gamey?" My answer: "Honestly, at this point, I have no idea."
A high percentage of the red meat consumed in my home is wild Georgia whitetail deer that I've harvested myself. To my palate, venison is what red meat is supposed to taste like. Yet, the flavor of an individual animal can be quite different. Many meals at my uncle’s hunting cabin in Wisconsin and friends’ dinner tables in Wyoming have shown me the truth of this.
Not surprisingly, a deer whose life is primarily spent eating in the corn fields of Iowa will have a different taste than a deer who has spent its life eating acorns in the southern woodlands of Georgia, or one who subsisted on the twigs and shoots from the forests of northern Wisconsin. What the deer eats becomes the deer meat.
No matter the diet and unique flavor of the animal, however, wild deer and, to a lesser extent, farm-raised ones are lean, athletic animals that have a significantly lower fat content than beef. They serve as an excellent source of protein. The iron levels in venison consistently rank among the highest of all meats. Wild deer are also completely free of the many hormones, antibiotics, steroids and other supplements present in commercial livestock.
In addition to the health benefits, venison is as versatile an ingredient as beef, and should be prepared using similar techniques. However, its leaner fat content requires a watchful eye and deft hand in the kitchen, as certain methods, without care, may result in the meat becoming too dry.
Venison is so lean, many chefs, and some wild game processors/butchers, add a small percentage of pork or beef fat to the ground meat to aid in holding the meat together during cooking and to prevent a too-dry result.
Like many mammals, the finest cut may be the loin or saddle cut. Also referred to as backstrap, this cut quickly seared over high heat and seasoned with nothing more than salt, pepper and rosemary, is positively mouth-watering.
When cooked properly, deer backstraps can be cut with a fork. Other recipes call for cube steaks for Milanesa, or ground meat for tacos, chili or a meat sauce to accompany pasta. Some of the tougher cuts, such as legs and shoulders, can be used as stew meat, roasted in a crock pot or ground into burgers.
The next time you're in the mood for a steak, or craving a burger, head to a specialty market or butcher shop and buy some venison instead of beef. Better yet, become acquainted with that neighbor or family member who hunts, and see if they'll share something from their freezer. They may also share their favorite recipe to get you started.
Venison’s popularity as a healthier, tastier alternative to beef continues to rise. Judging by the empty plates, the smiles and a complete lack of leftovers following the dinner party, the inquisitive, skeptical journalists seemed to agree.
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